In a report published earlier this year, it was revealed that domestic abuse issues cost the government £66 billion annually: an estimated two million adults experience domestic abuse each year, with women being twice as likely to be victims than men. In an attempt to address these issues, the government drafted a landmark ‘Domestic Abuse Bill’, published on January 21st 2019, which aims to “enable everyone, including victims themselves, to understand what constitutes abuse and will encourage more victims to come forward.” The intricacies of this new bill are many, but the details celebrated as ground-breaking are the attention it pays to economic abuse, as well as the funding of services for disabled, elderly and LGBTQ+ victims.
The question at hand is whether art can be used as a form of therapy, with particular reference to those who have suffered from domestic abuse. I think the straightforward answer is yes: art has the power to make you feel happy. So, if you’re a black-and-white, no-grey-areas type person, then you can throw in the towel and read no further. But, like with most things, it is difficult to prescribe something entirely universal.
art has the power to make you feel happy
For example, there are various reasons for why art can be helpful to those who are suffering with trauma, or any other kind of mental health issues. Firstly, art is a form of expression. It is a creative output for emotion that allows pent up thoughts and feelings to be translated onto paper. Domestic abuse is a harrowing ordeal, and many people find it difficult to put into words exactly how they are feeling; a pencil or paintbrush may therefore be a better way to pen their thoughts. Dr Sheridan Linnell runs the Master of Art Therapy course at the University of Western Sydney, and she notes, “Often creativity helps you to express parts of yourself that are being hidden. Expression through art can be healing in itself, and it can also be a stepping stone for being able to make sense of yourself and express your story to others.”
Besides the cost of materials, creating art is free, whilst therapy is not always. Therefore, as a form of therapy, art is in fact more accessible than a formal counselling session. Mindfulness colouring books are often advertised as a handy, inexpensive way to help calm and focus the mind. Furthermore, the act of creating art is a welcomed distraction from the constant reliving of past traumatic experiences. Similarly, attending an art class is less daunting than a one-on-one counselling session, and thus works as a non-threatening way of starting conversations about emotions and expression. As well as this, it is an opportunity to get out of the house and socialise with other people, which is a key part of learning to deal with mental health issues, and re-gaining confidence.
Another way of answering the question of ‘whether art can be therapy’ is an approach adopted by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in their aptly titled book, Art as Therapy. Unlike Dr. Linnell’s method, de Botton and Armstrong contend that a new form of appreciating and interpreting art is a form of therapy. One review reads, “Part philosophy, part art history, the book takes work that is considered by many to be lofty and rarefied, and relates it to our everyday lives.” Therefore, not only is the creation of art therapy, but art, when properly understood, can act as therapy in itself.
art can be therapeutic for many people, but it shouldn’t take the place of a therapist altogether
It seems as if the pros are many and the cons few, and that art appears to be the answer: perhaps GPs nationwide should prescribe a canvas and easel in place of alternative treatment methods. However, the mind is a complex place, and ultimately there are some issues that cannot simply be cured by painting a pretty picture. It appears that whilst the aforementioned approaches to art can be therapeutic for many people, but it shouldn’t take the place of a therapist altogether.
Becoming a therapist takes years of specialised training. There is something about person-to-person contact that speaks to the universal struggles of human existence, and this cannot be easily replaced by a colouring book. The new ‘Domestic Abuse Bill’ is a historic landmark for addressing issues that are all too prevalent in society. It educates us in what domestic abuse is, and encourages victims to come forward for the support they deserve. This support can take many forms, and for some this may be to find an alternate way of expressing themselves, perhaps through art. But for all, it requires time and attention from a dedicated and trained specialist to work out how best to help you, and not let the horrific and inexcusable actions of others define you. Art can help, but a therapist can help more.